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Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

This is part 2 of my review of The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind. Part 3 is here.

Here is the dilemma. You’re a well-respected scientist. You decide that you want to write a popular science book to bring your field and your research to the masses. However, a straight, logical presentation of the facts and the theories is too dry. We need to break it up a bit, add a bit of human interest.

So tell a story! Stories make us want to keep reading to find out how it ends. You decide to give some anecdotes, or even a historical overview. For the period of time during which you were in the field, this is easy – you can simply give a personal history of your interactions with the scientists involved, the ideas proposed, and their reception by the community. However, if you want to go back before your career started then you’ll need to rely on historical sources. Here lies the problem: you’re not a historian. As a scientist, if you read a paper published 20, 50, 100 years before you entered the field, you do it because the information is still relevant to your work. You don’t do it to get a fair and balanced sample of the intellectual climate at the time.

Your popular science book has now strayed out of your field and into the history of science. History is a very subtle subject – it deals with people, lots of people. People are complicated. If you’re not careful, you might end up repeating convenient, popular myths that reduce personalities to caricatures and events to fables.

Given the title of this post, you may have guessed that I’m about to accuse Susskind of precisely this allegation. Keep in mind – overall, his book is highly recommended. I am literally taking issue with a couple of footnotes. And, as I keep reminding you, I’m no historian either. I’ll do my best to quote from actual historians of science.

Around the Medieval World

Repeat after me: people in the Middle Ages did not think that the Earth was flat. Twice in his book, Susskind suggests that people only started believing that the Earth was round when it was circumnavigated, either by Magellan (page 67) or Columbus (page 160). This myth has been debunked so many times. It’s on Wikipedia’s “List of common misconceptions”. The best TV show ever joined the cause. The ancient Greeks not only knew it was round, but Eratosthenes made a very good estimate of the Earth’s diameter in 240 BC. In 1945, the “Members of the Historical Association” published a series of pamphlets titled “Common Errors in History”, the second of which says: (more…)

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It’s time for a book review: Jerry Coyne’s “Why evolution is true”. My review will be in three parts, the first of which will give me the chance to display my ignorance of biology. Such ignorance should not be underestimated – many of the questions I ask below are not rhetorical. I just don’t know enough to answer them. Regardless, I tried to read the book critically.

Firstly, the book was an enjoyable read and I learned a lot. Coyne writes quite well – one reviewer complained that he doesn’t have Dawkins’ flair, but who does? He has the occasional inspired metaphor or turn of phrase …

“The story of life on Earth is written in the rocks. True, this is a story book torn and twisted, with remnants of pages scattered about, but it is there, and significant portions of it are still legible.” (pg 21)

Explanations are clear and logically laid out, and his biological and historical examples (especially the story of Robert Scott) are mostly well selected. A good example of Coyne’s clarity is in explaining to the oft-heard claim that chimps and humans are 98.5% alike:

“… recent work shows that our genetic resemblance to our evolutionary cousins [chimps] is not quite as close as we thought … to consider an analogy, if you change only one percent of the letters of this page, you will alter far more than 1 percent of the sentences … more than 80% of all the proteins shared by the two species differ by at least one amino acid.” (pg 230)

I have a few gripes, however.

Gripe 1: On page 67, he shows a photo of a human baby with a small, tail-like protrusion, while two pages later he informs us:

“… some species of whales retail vestigial pelvises and rear leg bones, but one whale in 500 is actually born with a rear leg that protrudes outside the body wall. These limbs show all degrees of refinement, with many of them clearly containing the major leg bones of terrestrial mammals – the femur, tibia, and fibula. Some even have feet and toes!” (pg 69)

What?! There are whales with legs, feet and toes?! Why not show us a photo of that?! Why hasn’t a suitable skeleton been mounted in a large truck and parked outside the creation museum? That’s the stuff I want to see. (more…)

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